Nascar's in the Branded-Entertainment Fast Lane

After 'Talladega Nights' Success, League Excited About ABC, Gillette Projects

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NEW YORK -- Nascar has offices in Daytona Beach, Fla. -- naturally, since it was the birthplace of the auto racing league -- and Charlotte, N.C., where most of the teams are headquartered and where the Hall of Fame is being built, and a business office in New York.
Gillette's 'Young Gun' drivers are going to teach 12 celebs how to drive -- very fast -- for a six-part ABC reality series.

But when Nascar opened an office in Los Angeles a few years ago, people snickered.

L.A.? What for?

Recognizing the future

The answer was simple: Nascar was prescient enough to realize the future of branded entertainment, so it created the Los Angeles office for its Nascar Digital Entertainment unit, which manages, directs and creates new business opportunities for Nascar's broadcasting, new-media and entertainment programming ventures.

Now it's all paying off. Last year, the racing league enjoyed the success of the hit film "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby," in which Nascar was a willing participant and consultant.

This year, Nascar has two more platforms to showcase its brand.

Procter & Gamble's Gillette, which already does advertising around six Nascar drivers whom they have dubbed the "Young Guns," is producing a prime-time reality show. "Fast Cars and Super Stars: Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race" is currently filming, and the six-part series is scheduled to air on ABC this summer.

Teaching celebrities to drive

Celebrities such as former NFL quarterback John Elway, actor William Shatner, singer Jewel and several others will be taught how to drive by the Young Guns: Nascar drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman. The celebs will compete in various skills, abilities and, of course, head-to-head challenges.

The series idea originated with Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, which developed the original Young Guns sponsorship program Gillette launched in 2004, said Mike Norton, director-brand communications of P&G's Gillette. "Each and every time we're at a race, we see celebrities who interact with our drivers and are just fascinated by what it would take to drive a car 150 miles per hour," he said. "And the idea just came together."

Radical Media is the producer.

The idea is a sort of "Dancing With the Stars" for Nascar, in which the six Gillette Young Guns coach 12 non-racing celebrities through time trials and skill tests, but not full-blown races.

Mr. Norton declined to disclose spending, but indicated that talent fees were a substantial portion of the spending.

Extensive retail promotion tie-ins

Performance of the extensive retail promotion tie-ins with the show will be a major part of evaluating its success, he said. "We have this built into a lot of retail programs. We do have a program that's tied in with Gillette Fusion razors that will be at participating retailers."

The Gillette name pops up frequently on air, he said, as its on the fire suits worn by the six drivers and their cars. "In some of the shows, there is some Gillette branding throughout," Mr. Norton said. "But I don't think it's anything that you feel like you're watching an infomercial." He expects Gillette brands will advertise fairly heavily during commercial breaks as well.

The effort isn't Gillette's first foray into branded entertainment. The brand also is title of the "Gillette World Sports Special," a half-hour sports show that airs globally.

Gillette executives considered taking on the title sponsorship of the racing league's championship series after Winston withdrew and before Nextel succeeded it earlier in the decade, according to one person familiar with the matter, but it was still too early in the company's business turnaround to pull the trigger on such a large deal. (Mr. Norton declined to comment on that).

But the three-year-old Young Guns sponsorship has been a very pleasing consolation prize. "As a platform, it gave Gillette an opportunity to come back into Nascar in a meaningful way," Mr. Norton said. "The fact that the concept was interesting enough for one of the networks to look at for a reality show really speaks to the power of what we created. So from that aspect, the young guns brand and the tradition ... met or exceeded our expectations."

It doesn't hurt that Young Guns drivers have won the Nextel Cup each of the past two years -- Mr. Johnson last year and Mr. Busch in 2005.

Nascar did not have a say in this production, but Sarah Nettinga, Nascar's managing director for film, TV and entertainment, said, "Gillette is a sponsor, and we encourage our sponsors to activate in any way possible. So we're excited about it."

Behind-the-scenes unscripted documentary

Nascar did, however, greenlight an unscripted documentary from ABC News that will showcase the racing league and its competitors. The behind-the-scenes look will be called "Nascar in Prime Time." The one-hour series is scheduled to premiere later this summer. ABC has an initial order of four episodes.

"They'll be looking at both on and off track," Ms. Nettinga said. "The concept is to explain the cultural American phenomenon it's become. It's geared as much toward the nonfan as the fan."

Ms. Nettinga said Nascar was originally approached with the idea by producer Michael Bicks two years ago. Once Nascar signed a new TV rights deal with ABC/ESPN that started this year, it expedited the project.

"His idea was, because it's become so big and so fascinating, he wanted to bring across to the prime-time audience the draw of Nascar," she said. "It took a couple of years to get together, but the combination of ABC coming back and the success of 'Talladega Nights' really helped."

Mr. Bicks will be the executive producer of the program.

Ms. Nettinga said this is exactly the kind of idea she was hoping for.

"We get a lot of submissions, but for us we're looking for certain things, so people have gotten better at giving us ideas," she said. "The Hollywood community is doing a better job of paring back the pitches and giving us the elements of a show we're looking for."
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